COLUMBIA — Oklahoma used to be hunted.
The Sooners won the national championship in 2000 and will be playing in its conference-best sixth Big 12 title game on Saturday night in San Antonio.
But unlike years past, the ninth-ranked Sooners (10-2) head into Saturday’s game with the power to derail a national champion hopeful, top-ranked Missouri (11-1), rather than playing for a berth of its own.
The Sooners’ title hopes died two weeks ago after they lost to Texas Tech, but as one sports columnist from The Oklahoman found out, that doesn’t mean OU is going to hand the Tigers a free pass to the national championship on Saturday.
When the columnist asked if the Sooners were in an odd position playing the role of spoiler against the Tigers, OU coach Bob Stoops seethed with anger.
“That’s not true. We’ve got a chance for the Big 12 championship. There’s nothing spoiler about that. A spoiler is some team coming in here 5-6 or 6-5 hoping to knock someone out of the Big 12 Championship.
“Last week (against 6-5 Oklahoma State) was a spoiler role for someone. Not us. It’s not a spoiler role when you’re in line to win the conference championship. So don’t put us in that category.”
Spoiler or not, when it comes to experience, the Sooners have a clear advantage over the Tigers. OU has won four Big 12 championship games, while the Tigers will be making their first appearance.
The Tigers certainly aren’t taking the Sooners lightly. They’ve seen how dangerous the Sooners can be. OU beat the Tigers 41-31 on Oct. 13 in Norman, Okla.
“Our players and staff have tremendous respect for Oklahoma,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said during Monday’s teleconference. “You have to. They’re a first-class program. They’re well coached. They recruit well. And they’re accomplished.
“That being said, that’s also great motivation to play your best game. So I think that (our) focus and intensity is directly because of the great football team that they are, the great program they are.”
Pinkel also knows that Oklahoma has the upper hand in playing big-stakes games.
“Oklahoma has been in the national championship, and they’ve been through all those experiences,” Pinkel said. “This is just another game for them.”
The Sooners will come into the game full of pride, but they also have their share of dings.
Quarterback Sam Bradford will be ready to go after a concussion knocked him out of the Tech game, but the team’s best running back, freshman DeMarco Murray, will sit out with a dislocated knee.
The Sooners, who stock talent like vending machines stock Rolos, still have two dangerous backs in senior Allen Patrick (839 yards, seven touchdowns) and sophomore Chris Brown, who burned the Tigers in the first meeting, rushing for 69 yards and three touchdowns.
“When you get a chance to make a play on a running back you got to make sure you rap him up and tackle him,” MU defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams said. “All of those guys are very strong runners.”
The Sooners will also likely be without star defensive end Auston English, who is still recovering from a hairline fracture in his right ankle that he injured against Texas A&M a month ago. Listed as questionable for Saturday, English leads the Big 12 with nine sacks and was named first-team all-conference by the Big 12 coaches this week.
“Our young guys got to step up,” said OU junior linebacker Curtis Lofton, who recovered a fourth-quarter fumble and returned it for a touchdown against Missouri in October. “That’s pretty much the reason why you come to OU. You get plenty of opportunities to play in big games like this.”
Though this will be the Tigers’ first time playing for such high stakes, they can point to two games that prove they can win in a bowl-like atmosphere.
The Tigers beat No. 15 Illinois in St. Louis the opening week of the season, and last week, in the team’s biggest game to date, the Tigers outlasted Kansas 36-28 in front of more than 80,000 crazed fans at Arrowhead Stadium to win the Big 12 North.
“I think that (the KU game) will help us out a lot because it’s going to be about the exact same thing (in San Antonio),” MU tight end Martin Rucker said. “Arrowhead was rocking on Saturday...It was just crazy out there, and that’s what we’re looking forward to this weekend.”
Don’t expect the Tigers to play with a hangover.
“That game is over with,” Williams said. “OU is the next game on the schedule, and just as much as you put into the KU game, you’ve got to put more into the OU game. I think our guys got the message.”